NEWS FROM JAPAN - ABE GUTS ARTICLE 9
On July 1st, Prime Minister Abe and his administration forced through a Cabinet decision that fundamentally changes the government’s long-standing interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution by loosening Japan's restraints on the use of force and allowing exercise of the right of collective self-defense.
The latest in a long series of initiatives that challenge Article 9, the cabinet decision overturns the consistent interpretation by all administration of the past decades. It also represents a “political coup” for bypassing the due democratic process for constitutional amendment.
Strong movement of protest
The Cabinet decision has sparked widespread opposition from the Japanese public, with tens of thousands taking to the streets of the country’s cities to express their disapproval.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of voters in Japan are opposed to Abe’s efforts to revise Article 9. According to a Kyodo News survey conducted at the beginning of August, over 60% of respondents oppose Japan using the right of collective self-defense (against some 31% who support it) and as many as 84% of the public think the government hasn’t provided a satisfactory explanation of why the Cabinet decided to reinterpret the Constitution to authorize Japan to participate in collective self-defense operations. An earlier poll indicated that close to 67% opposed Abe's strategy to change the government's interpretation of the Constitution instead of seeking to amend it.
Article 9 has been widely recognized as a regional and international peace mechanism that has contributed to maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
In the current context of regional tensions, the decision to reinterpret Article 9 has added oil to the fire of the already poised relations between Japan and its neighbors over territorial disputes and historical recognition issues. China and South Korea have reacted angrily to what they consider as yet another sign of the resurgence of Japan’s nationalism. In a joint communiqué, the two countries shared their worries about Japan' s attempt to expand the self-defense right, given the country’s continued history-revisionist attitude.
This view has been echoed by a South Korean parliamentary committee that qualified the move by the Abe administration as “provocation” and interpreted it as “explicitly revealing an ambition to become a military power," while Chinese state-run newspapers called the move “a dangerous signal” that is “making the world more worried.”
Marking the 120th anniversary of the start of the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese General Peng Guangqian deplored the fact that "Japan is striding on the path of remilitarization now." Assessing China’s military forces, he claimed that China was ”more than able to counter Japan's military provocations.” “Just a half or one-third (of its military forces) is enough to teach (Japan) a good hard lesson," he said.
His remarks epitomize how the decision is posing a serious threat to the fragile peace in Northeast Asia, threatening to speed up the arms race already taking place and lead to an actual confrontation.
Unsurprisingly, the US, which has long prodded Japan to assume a greater security role as part of their defense cooperation, “welcome[d] the Government of Japan's new policy regarding collective self-defense, which will enable the Japan Self-Defense Forces to engage in a wider range of operations and make the U.S.-Japan alliance even more effective.” Further, with the decision timed as the two countries are revising their cooperation guidelines, Washington qualified the decision as “an important step” towards “mak[ing] a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.“
Next steps in Japan
Although symbolic, the decision does not yet have the force of law. More than a dozen laws still act as clear legal barriers to constitutional reinterpretation and will need to be amended by parliament to enact the change – a process announced to take place earlier next year.
The legislative process and its outcome will help assess the real significance of the Cabinet decision.
To coordinate this process, Abe created a new ministerial post as part of his September 3 Cabinet reshuffle, and appointed Mr. Eto Akinori as Minister in Charge of Security Legislation (and Defense Minister). In his first public address, Eto hinted he may adopt a more consensual approach, declaring his intention to “provide detailed explanations to the citizens of Japan through Diet proceedings”. If he delivers on his promises, it may create room for a genuine debate.
Several civil society initiatives related to the legislative process have emerged, with the hope they can influence the outcome.
For instance, a group of researchers, journalists, NGO representatives, publishers and academics have come together to form the Study Group on Right to Collective Self-Defense, with the purpose of providing informed analysis and commentary on the many dimensions to be considered as part of the debate, including the legal aspects and international repercussions. By providing such information to parliamentarians, party officials and civil society representatives, the group seeks to reflect concerns related to the decision and shed light on a number of issues that have been kept aside.
Japanese civil society has an important window of opportunity to prevent Japan from becoming “a country that can wage war.” If it remains mobilized and receives the support from groups and individuals within the region and beyond, it can play an important role in safeguarding Japan’s peace commitments.
It is not too late to reverse course. Abe claims the change of interpretation of Article 9 is part of his doctrine of “proactive pacifism”. Yet so far, it has done little more than exacerbate regional tensions. Together, we can turn his slogan under its head and demonstrate that real proactive pacifism lies in Article 9.
Indeed, widely recognized as a regional and international peace mechanism, Article 9 has contributed to maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Article 9, instead of being eviscerated, could be used as an important political tool towards the establishment of mechanisms for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
Picture credit: Associated Press